Sepik River communities file human rights complaint against Australian company PanAust over its proposed Gold-Copper mine
Today, 2,638 people from 64 villages along the Sepik River in Papua New Guinea have filed a complaint with the Australian Government against Brisbane-based PanAust Limited, for failing to obtain their consent to the proposed Frieda River Mine. If built, the mine would be the largest ever in Papua New Guinea and among the largest mines in the world.
The complaint, filed with the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) Australian National Contact Point, argues that the proposed mine poses a serious risk for communities living on the Sepik River.
The mine, proposed to be built in the headwaters of the Sepik River, includes a tailings dam estimated to be twice the size of Sydney Harbour, to be built in one of the most seismically active regions in the world. A failure of the tailings dam would cause environmental destruction and chemical contamination of the river, food and water sources and sacred sites, and result in loss of human life.
The complaint asserts that PanAust and its subsidiary, Frieda River Limited, failed to get consent from the Sepik River communities for the mine, despite its potential to cause them catastrophic harm. This violates their right as Indigenous peoples to give their Free, Prior and Informed Consent to developments that affect them.
The complaint also argues that PanAust has failed to properly assess the environmental impacts of the project. Expert reviews of the project’s Environmental Impact Statement in 2020 found it did not adequately assess the impact of the project on water catchments, and that it is missing vitally important information about the impact of a dam break on downstream communities.
The complaint was lodged on behalf of the affected community members by local organisation Project Sepik Inc and Australian NGO Jubilee Australia Research Centre.
The complaint asks PanAust and its subsidiaries to pause all further mine development as all affected communities do not currently consent to the mine. It asks the company to undertake independently monitored consultation with all potentially affected communities and commit to discontinuing its plans for the mine if all affected communities do not give their Free, Prior and Informed Consent.
Emmanuel Peni, Coordinator of Project Sepik Inc, said: “The communities have been resisting ever since plans were made to build a mine. The Melanesian governance of the land and water through the Supreme Sukundimi Declaration declared a total ban on the mine. United Nations Special Rapporteurs are also asking questions. PanAust must listen to and respect the views of the Sepik River communities.”
Dr Luke Fletcher, Executive Director of Jubilee Australia Research Centre said: “We are bringing this complaint to the Australian National Contact Point because the communities along the Sepik River have not had the chance to exercise their right to Free, Prior and Informed Consent. Those communities have the right to have their voices heard and to decide what happens on their land. The Sepik River communities have clearly voiced their concerns about this mine, but so far, those concerns have fallen on deaf ears.”
The development of the complaint included a consultation with 51 Haus Tambarans (‘spirit houses’) along the River – which are important centers of spiritual, cultural and administrative governance – in April-May 2021.
In October 2021, Project Sepik teams travelled from village to village along the Sepik River, gathering signatures from members of the communities after explaining the role of the OECD National Contact Point and sharing the proposed content of the complaint.
“The attendance of the people was exceptional, the support was great. I was excited to work with the Chiefs of the Haus Tambarans to inform the people and collect their signatures for the complaint letter to OECD National Contact Point” reported Florence Tangit, leader of the team that travelled to the Upper Sepik River.
The human rights complaint
A copy of the human rights complaint is available here.
The OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises set out international standards for businesses operating across more than one country. They are a set of recommendations, agreed to by governments, on how businesses can operate responsibly. The Guidelines cover a range of topics including: Environment; Human rights; Labour rights; Corruption; Transparency; and Tax.
The Australian OECD National Contact Point, based in the Department of Treasury, has the power to investigate complaints made against Australian companies operating overseas, where those companies are alleged to have breached the Guidelines. The National Contact Point can issue findings on whether companies are in breach of their obligations under the Guidelines and recommend actions to address any breaches that have occurred.
Project Sepik is a not-for-profit organisation based in Papua New Guinea that has been working in the Sepik region since 2016. Project Sepik advocates for the vision of a local environment with a sustained balance of life via the promotion of environmentally sustainable practices and holding to account those that are exploiting the environment.
Jubilee Australia Research Centre
Jubilee Australia Research Centre partners with and amplifies the voices of local communities in the Asia Pacific region in the fight against an extractive and unequal economic system, produces quality investigative research and advocates for just solutions that centre communities.
Project Sepik and Jubilee Australia spearhead the Save the Sepik campaign. Find out more at www.savethesepik.org . Save the Sepik's recent report 'The Sukundimi Walks Before Me’ about the dangers associated with the Frieda mine can be found here.